Parlando Project Winter 2017–the Most Popular Piece of the Last Season

The last few days I’ve been looking back over the past three months at the audio pieces that received the most listens and likes from visitors here, and we’ve now counted up to the post revealing the most popular piece.

But before I get to that, let me let newer visitors here know what the Parlando Project is. For the past few years I’ve been experimenting with the ways that words can be used along with music. Most of the words are going to be poetry, if only because I like shorter pieces for this, and poetry accommodates that desire most easily. The music? My goal is: as varied as we can make it. The “we” here are largely myself and Dave Moore, who I’ve played with as the LYL Band since the late 1970s. Dave also is the alternative voice of the Parlando Project, one that’s read or sung several popular pieces during the history of this project.

Dave and I have also been writers (Dave’s also a cartoonist) since our youth, but this project is not, in it’s greater part, about presenting our written work. Rather it’s about looking at a variety of other people’s experiences and expressions, reacting to them, and seeking to embody them in a way we hope you’ll find interesting.

Do we turn the poems into songs? Sometimes. Sometimes they were, or were meant to be, songs anyway (Tagore and Campion for example). But often we aim for something that is cast between spoken word and chant. As best as I can figure out, this is akin to what William Butler Yeats once aimed to do with poetry and poetic drama, and he thought William Blake, Sappho and the Celtic bards did the same. And for myself, in addition to those Yeats pointed to, it’s my spin on what Jack Kerouac, John Lee Hooker, Allen Ginsberg, and Patti Smith (along with others) did.

Rap/Hip Hop does this too, but as varied as those artists’ approaches are, most of their tactics I can’t make work for me. No disrespect, it’s just my limitations.

Well, here’s the Parlando Project’s most popular piece from the last three months: Tristan Tzara’s “The Death of Apollinaire.”  It was number 3 last September, so it’s been getting the listens since last summer, yet it’s not one I selected because it was well-known or sure to be popular.

Tristan Tzara by Robert Delaunay

Accessorizing with knitted wear was the most important artistic dictum of Dada

Tristan Tzara, one of the founders of Dada, is not that widely available in English, and even the subject of this elegy, the influential Polish-French writer and critic Guillaume Apollinaire, has a fame that doesn’t transfer with full brightness off the European continent. I did my own translation from Tzara’s French for this piece. And though I’ve attempted to do this, off and on, since my youth, translating Surrealist, much less Dada, poetry into English has it’s extra complications: to what degree is an image meant to be impenetrable and random, meaningless as a stance; and to what degree is it instead a shockingly fresh juxtaposition?

I have a prejudice for the later. When I am translating poetry I take it for a given that I will not be able to convey the auditory music of the original, though I try to retain the musical development of its statements, and above all, I try to find English words and idiom that will grab the English-speaking reader’s interest with vividness.  This approach has it’s dangers, as I’m not enough of a scholar of the lives of writers or of the their languages to make the most informed decisions, but in the case of “The Death of Apollinaire”  I feel this leads to a very effective and affecting statement about the death of an artist still suffering from his battle wounds just after the end of the WWI.

My limitations aside, I hope I was faithful to Tzara’s voice, and I hope you’ll find it moving too. You can listen to it with the player below.

New pieces will be coming soon, so come back and check, or hit that “Follow this Blog” button up near the top-right to get notices of new pieces.

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The Parlando Project Winter 2017 Top 10 Part 3

Here we go, continuing our Top Ten countdown for the most popular audio pieces from the past Fall as counted by your likes and streaming listens. In the past two posts we’ve done numbers 10 through 5, so let’s move on to number 4.

One thing I enjoy about this project is that I can’t predict which pieces will get the most response, and in 4th place this past Fall we have my rendition of a excerpt from Gertrude Stein’s arch-Modernist “Tender Buttons.”  Not only was it popular last Fall, but it actually improved on its 8th place position from last Summer’s Top 10.

Stein’s experiments have to be seen as the forerunner of what came to be known decades later as “Language Poets”—poetry that reveled in the indeterminacy of our language, that exploited all the cracks and odd turns in our real everyday spoken syntax. This poetry can seem intimidating if one is pressed to extract a meaning immediately, but one value of the Parlando Project is that we’re free to perform the poetry with music and allow any straightforward meaning to take a back seat to the sound and flow of the words. And the poetry of “Language Poets” often gains some singular meanings when read aloud, because our everyday spoken syntax is nowhere near as clear as good written prose would be. We commonly understand meanings when words are  spoken from inflection and our groupings of words that no diagramed sentence can measure.

Musically, I doubled down on the Modernist tilt of Stein’s words by speaking them to my interpretation of the style of Don VanVliet who performed as “Captain Beefheart.” VanVliet took the vernacular freedom of Delta Blues music and expanded on it even further. His own lyrics, like his own music, like Gertrude Stein’s words, don’t seem to make sense at first, until you open up and let them in for awhile, until the off-center is normalized, and you begin to see the facets of the brilliant corners. That journey starts—maybe only starts—when you listen to this piece the first time.

 

At Number 3, we have another returning piece from last Summer, “On the Troop Ship to Gallipoli,”  based on my recasting of WWI poet Rupert Brooke’s late fragment, written down shortly before his death on the way to the front in Turkey. If the soldier’s death of Modernist instigator T. E. Hulme (whose “Trenches St. Eloi”  was earlier in our Top 10) cost him the opportunity to solidify his position as a founder of British Modernism, Brooke’s death gave him no chance to outgrow or adapt his 19th Century poetics to the new realities of warfare that WWI revealed to many others.  So, while maintaining my respect for Brooke’s experience as he wrote it down, I tightened and modernized his language and presentation to create the kind of poem Hulme, F. S. Flint, Ezra Pound, or Siegfried Sassoon would have written.

I tried to work the time-worn musical tactic of the slow build in my setting for this one. The final fuzzy musical strain in this is a conventional electric guitar played with an E-bow, a device that magnetically drives a string without plucking it, somewhat in imitation of what a real bow does on a bowed string instrument.

 

Robert Johnsons

One of these two guys cut a crossroads deal at midnight that let him use Shakespeare’s lyrics

 

At number 2 in our Top 10, we’re back to a piece that hasn’t made a Top 10 before. It just so happens that it’s another adaptation or free translation, this time by Elizabethan physician, poet, musician Thomas Campion. With “Let Us Live and Love”  Campion’s first stanza is a faithful enough translation of a poem by the Roman poet Catullus, but he then decided to develop his own path out of that beginning.

And so, by the second stanza Campion comes close to coining the Sixties’ slogan “Make Love not War” and he closes with a mighty invocation of love as the great illuminator of our darkness.

The Elizabethan age saw a flowering of lute player/composers. Many of them adapted the words of Elizabethan poets as well as writing and using their own poetry. One of Campion’s contemporaries was the great John Dowland, and another was a man named Robert Johnson. A perfectly common name, but a name that many people today associate with another singer/composer/stringed instrument player, the famous Delta bluesman.

So rather than using Campion’s own tune, I chose to set Campion’s words to my own Blues tune with slide guitar and harmonica.

 

That leaves only Number 1 to go. What piece was the most liked and listened to here last Fall? Check back tomorrow to find out.

The Parlando Project Winter 2017 Top 10 Part 2

Picking up from where we left off yesterday, here are the next three most popular audio pieces based on readers here hitting the like button along with the number of streams and downloads counted during this past fall.

Number 7 is Edna St. Vincent Millay’s “”Sonnet 43”.  I seem to be coming to a greater appreciation for Millay as I do this project. Like my long time favorite Carl Sandburg, Millay “suffered” from too much popularity in her heyday, and like Sandburg I believe that her popularity in non-academic circles at the least caused critics to feel that they need not bother to examine her work more closely.

I’ll admit, I was one of those that thought she sounded like someone trying to be a 19th Century poet when the 20th Century was well and truly underway. Now in the 21st Century, I find this less of a crime, and when I let go of that, I find I like this sonnet’s complex appreciation of love’s limits.

Musically I love that I was able to play a convincing arco bass using a MIDI-controlled virtual instrument for this one. Bowed string bass is like the snoring of the bear mother in a winter den to me, immense, and yet sweet and comforting.

 

 

 

Speaking of Carl Sandburg, his “Autumn Movement”  made it all the way to number 6, and that’s remarkable because it was only released on October 20th and thus had less than half of the Fall interval to pickup likes and listeners. I love the central autumn image in this one from Sandburg’s “Cornhuskers”  collection, and it reminds us that Sandburg, known also for his acutely observed Chicago poems and journalism, was from the very start of his career interested in conveying rural life as well.

Musically, this piece demonstrates how recently I had seen Bill Frisell in concert—and seeing him, and the musicians he plays with, is something I try to keep always recent in my experience. Of course, Bill Frisell has an immense amount of musical vocabulary under his fingers, and I don’t; but I tried to make the best of mine, which is all any musician can do.

 

 

Bill Frissell with books

Besides his music, I admire Bill Frisell’s interior decorating sense and, alas, his sartorial style.

 

Our number 5 piece in popularity this fall was T. E. Hulme’s report from “Trenches St. Eloi.”   Many of the Modernist soldier/poets who served in WWI grew not only to  hate war, but to distrust their country’s cause and justifications for their particular war. Hulme is something of a exception. As far as I can tell, he remained supportive of the British war effort in which he eventually lost his life. That doesn’t make “Trenches St. Eloi”  propaganda, for it’s far from blind to the horrors and difficulties of extended conflict. Hulme’s death shortened his career and helped mask his seminal contribution to modernizing British poetry.

Since starting this blog, I’ve been following the centenary of World War I off and on in the background, which meshes well with much of the material I can present here without running into rights issues, since modern public domain status cuts off at 1924. The material from the poets who served in the war or were otherwise touched by it, is, not unexpectedly, downbeat. Just as the Modernist revolution changed poetry, WWI changed how war was written about, breaking millenniums-long Homeric traditions of war heroes, that however flawed, were able to shape battles by their character, into stories of endurance like this one.

This is another one where the bass guitar gets to carry a lot of weight.

 

 

Thanks again for reading and listening. It’s been a huge amount of work this past year to bring you the Parlando Project pieces, hundreds of hours of reading, studying, translating, composing, playing, and recording these unique combinations of various words (mostly poetry) with various original music (as varied as Dave and I can make it). That wasn’t drudgery—far from it—it’s brought joy and amazement to me to see what’s out there that I haven’t heard or imagined before, and I hope some of that wonder and discovery comes through to the readers and listeners here, because it’s our goal to surprise and delight you, to show you new facets of poems or poets you thought you knew and to introduce you to some writers that didn’t get included in your textbooks.

Here’s what I ask you to do if we’ve succeeded in that, even if only for a piece or two out of the more than 160 pieces we’ve presented so far: let others know about it. Tap them on the shoulder, show them the URL, link us on your blog or on social media, stick an earbud in their ear. Every like, listen, link and comment helps me keep doing this. I know I should be a better promoter of this work, but frankly, I’m too engaged in the work itself to do as much as is needed.

And standby, the next three most popular pieces from the past fall will be posted soon.

The Parlando Project Winter 2017 Top 10 Part 1

I’m going to do the top 10 list a little differently for the past fall,  doing it in parts, so as to not overwhelm visitors here in one post with more audio pieces than you might have time to listen to. I’m also a bit pressed for time right now, and this fits with my schedule as well.

In traditional fashion, we’ll start with the 10th most popular audio piece from the past three months, and work our way up the list in popularity judged by your streams of the audio and likes on the blog.

Number 10, we have my looser translation of Rainier Maria Rilke’s “The Dark Interval,”  which is one of five pieces that are returning from our last Top 10 from September.  I translated this a few years back, making choices at the time (as translators must) as to what the author was getting at in the original German, and what English could most effectively reflect that. Knowing just a little bit more about Rilke, I think I’d make some different, better informed choices now, but the choices I made then do make for a particularly apt Winter poem with it’s opening skiing metaphor that was my most audacious choice. Rilke’s lines “I can speak in many voices/but this voice shuts up quick.” remain personally meaningful.

Musically, this is one of the short and pretty ones, so go ahead and listen.

 

 

Number 9 finds the piece that remains a perennial on the Top 10 lists, a little angsty ditty written by a love-lorn teenager infatuated with a neighbor girl. Although he didn’t actually complete the piece, with it’s acrostic scheme that was to spell out the young woman’s entire name left abandoned partway through the last name, and even though he apparently didn’t get the girl, you have to admit it’s an ambitious move by a young poet or suitor.

I titled it with the love object’s first name “Frances.”  The guy went on to military and political success, capping it off eventually with popular success as a wordsmith here. You may have heard of him: George Washington

 

 

Rose3

“When the last rose of summer pricks my finger…” photo by Renee Robbins

 

 

Well, is it all going to be repeats from last time? No. At number 8 we have a newer piece, making it’s first appearance on a Top 10 here, William Carlos Williams’ “It Is a Small Plant.”

My late wife often found pleasure in looking at things closely. How intent and intense could her focus become, and what would that reveal? If she found out, she could never tell me exactly, only that she was drawn to do that. Many years ago, after her death, I took to digitizing the photographic slide prints that she took, some of which were as close to buds and flowers as her lens could focus, and the feeling of being behind her eyes, looking with her intent, fell over me.

Williams does something like that in his poem, which also cannot tell you straightforwardly what it apprehends, while the power of the seeing is overwhelming. I like the music I played for this one quite a bit, particularly the fretless bass part, an instrument that I took up this year, and have felt greatly rewarded by.

 

 

That’s all for today, but three more of the Top 10 will be posted here soon. And remember, we now have over 160 pieces posted, so if you’d like to see what else we’ve performed and interpreted, the Archives (to the right on the web page) will let you listen to other pieces.

In Praise of Not Great Poetry

I’m about to make a point that seems to me to be nearly self-evident, yet I feel the need to make it because I sense a conflicting opinion is the premise behind some commonly made judgements about poetry.

Poetry of course is only one of many arts. In our time, it is one of the arts that feels it needs to justify itself more often. Poetry feels like it’s neglected, marginalized, underappreciated, and there are reasons for it to think so.

Does music do this? One can find defenses for the value of music, yes, but these cries are not the same. Similarly, the other arts that use words: prose of various kinds, cinema, live drama—people will defend their value, but not with the elephant of marginalized dread that advocates of poetry feel they must deal with.

Why is that? I’m going to use a loaded word to describe the cause, one that is likely not quite right, but one that I can’t find a short pithy substitute for: snobbery. There may be a better word. I mean, really, it’s more at a misapplied kind of elitism, but elitism is an even more misunderstood and misused word.

Roman Hruska

Roman Hruska. Is this is a picture of a great modern poet, or a leading voice of
“The New Criticism” who established the 20th Century ideals of great poetry?

 

Roman L. Hruska was a doctrinaire Midwestern conservative who served in Congress in the middle of the 20th Century. His place in history is constrained to one quote. Hruska’s infamous rhetorical thrust, meant to defend a Supreme Court appointment before the Senate for confirmation, was so mockable that it helped defeat that candidate.

I rise today knowing that what I’m about to say risks the same fate.

Here’s what Hruska said about Harold Carswell, who as candidate for the High Court, had been attacked as a mediocre jurist. “Even if he were mediocre, there are a lot of mediocre judges and people and lawyers. They are entitled to a little representation, aren’t they, and a little chance?”

That too is a misunderstanding of elitism. It is elitism to want the best leaders, the best judges. It is also elitism to desire all kinds of difficult and challenging arts. Given that elitism is sometimes thrown around as an insult in our century, let me be clear, I support that idea. It’s good to desire the best, to even take risks for the best, particularly in the arts, which have fewer direct consequences, and therefore can serve as a “research and development” department for outlooks and thoughts that we may want to experiment with a bit before we apply them to surgery or criminal law.

What does this have to do with poetry’s pervasive feeling of marginalization?

In the last century, poetry continued on an artistic and critical path that diverged from the other musical and literary arts. When any serious critical and institutional focus on the poetic arts were called for, poetry divested itself of all of it’s non-elite branches and expressions. Song lyrics? Not poetry. Popular poems, the kind once memorized by schoolchildren? Not real  poetry. Humorous poems? Humor, not poetry. Verse that is predominantly interesting because it’s musical speech? No. You don’t understand, poetry is about complex language examining difficult to express matrixes of experience. Thoughts and experiences from marginalized or particular speakers? Well, nice that they can speak up these days, but, please, it’s not poetry. Hip Hop/rap? Oh, come on! Get serious.

I can agree with what some literary critics and gatekeepers observe about these forms of expression, but not their judgement.

I too can be bored and uninterested in things that may fall into those “It’s not  poetry” bins. I can also be bored and uninterested in some page poetry which is credentialed and endorsed as serious mainstream literary poetry—you know, the stuff that’s poetry.  I can even change my mind about what I find interesting and worth my attention. I see new things in the work. I live new experiences. And sometimes when I’m listening to some musical speech, I’m seeking a pleasure or relief that’s hard to detail as criteria for greatness.

What if we considered all narrative prose that wasn’t a contender for the greatest novel ever written as, well, not prose. I enjoy a detective novel once in a while. Short stories can be sublime. Should I remind myself as I enjoy them that they are inferior in some criteria for a great novel? I find interest in some of the most austere or minimal modern serious music, but if every time I hear a good three-minute tune that makes a conventional set of chords seem inevitable all over again, should I feel ashamed that I think that’s music?

Can what is “not great” inform something greater? Many of the early Modernists seemed to think so—but it need not be applied like a newspaper clipping to a cubist collage or a folk tune to a symphony, it can be part of a vital continuum of human expression without needing elevation or even a judgment of hierarchy over all else.

I believe it’s a mistake for poetry, so concerned with it’s potential vital contribution to human culture, to feel that it can best survive by severing its cerebral head, leaving its ass and its elbow to wander around as “not poetry.”

Stopping by a Woods with Bad Cellphone Service

For some time, I’ve disliked the way the idea of “generations” has been treated by the culture at large. Not the nugget of thought that’s in it, that cohorts of people in a particular time and place will share certain experiences, some of which will shape their outlook—but the nutty, pseudo-scientific way it’s been used. The balderdash that’s been added to “generations” includes the nonsense that there are some sharp and agreed on borders to them and that everyone inside of these sharp lines in time not only shares the same experience, but reacts to these things in the same way.

The crap labels we use like “Generation X” (Billy Idol and Richard Hell may have a lot to answer for, but let’s not hang this on them) or “Millennials,” (who could just as well be perennial grinders of grain for all the meaning I assign to that word) have become like unto the Sixties’ penchant for astrological signs. “Oh, you’re so Millennial” or “Members of Gen X think this way” have become the Moonchildren and Fire Signs of our age.

And of course, the borders of these deterministic generation containers are natural and inviolate—no, don’t look at them, as they will seem arbitrary and varied if you look too close. Are generations 12, 20, 30 years long? Don’t ask, as we don’t agree. And is someone born in 1946 exposed to the same set of experiences as someone born in 1963? Don’t look too close.

I bring this up, because this week I wrote a parody. And as humorists have been known to do, I went and used some generational stereotypes. I was pressed for time, those sorts of things are ready-mades, one or two people found it funny, if I use it humorously I’m making fun of it—Oh, I’m giving up. I’m ashamed.

Look, one of the good things about considering the experiences conveyed by writers whose words I use here, is that most have been dead for generations, no matter how long we define that term. Seems like they are each their own people, not clichés like “Victorians” or “the Lost Generation.”

New start. I had a serious thought as I started this. Earlier this month I revisited the well-known yet too-little-reconsidered Robert Frost poem “Stopping by a Woods on a Snowy Evening.”  As I thought about the experience Robert Frost was describing (if an actual country winter buggy ride, some think it occurred in 1909), I considered how different the night and the rural roadscape would have been then, compared to how we have informally remembered Frost’s poem. I thought the opening stanza of that poem, starting with Frost’s line that’s fallen into too-famous-to-think-about status: “Whose woods these are, I think I know,” could be describing a person who was lost in a darkening, rural pre-electric light, night—instead of a poet some of us remember as irresponsibly stopping to look at a well-lit Christmas-card pretty sight of a woods in snowfall.

I was thinking then: “Now I’d have not just the possibility of bright headlights, but a cellphone in my pocket that should tell me just where I am, no matter what poetic truth I’d be trying to express.”

And then I thought again about that phone. There are still areas, even in North America, without cellphone service. GPS signals don’t penetrate everywhere. Those maps in our apps are not without errors.

Cell Coverage vs Drake in Coat

Drake’s from Canada, but Minnesota and New England need cell coverage and warm coats too.

 

So, today’s piece, which I call “Stopping by a Woods with Bad Cellphone Service”  is actually a serious piece of winter travel safety advice, not a scurrilous piece of generational stereotyping, which I would never stoop to doing here.

Stopping by a Woods with Bad Cellphone Service lyrics

Here are today’s words, but you want to listen to the music don’t you?

 

But when you think of scurrilous, I hope you think of the LYL Band. It’s been awhile since I’ve had a piece that wasn’t created by that scrupulous and well-behaved group of musicians that is myself—recording it instrument by instrument, a track at a time. The LYL Band is an organization in the same way that a hockey fight or litter of kittens is organized, which is to say, barely, though we attack things with abandon playfully or otherwise. To hear us, use the player below.

 

 

A Dust of Snow

Here’s another winter poem by Robert Frost to put to our uses. Writing about my last piece here, Frost’s “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening,”  I wondered about the actualities of the scene the poet was describing: a New England winter road in a dark snowy evening before the coming of rural electrification. Frost would know, of course, that it would be quite dark in those conditions. But did he use that knowledge when he wrote the poem? Did he, the author—like I did as a reader once (despite knowing too the darkness of rural night)—visualize a well-lit snowfall on trees, an alluring and beautiful sight that might tempt him to stay and watch for a while?

I can’t say for sure.

Frost’s “A Dust of Snow” is even shorter, and the accepted meaning of its images has been a settled thing for some time. Last time I wondered if “Stopping by Woods”  was more a poem about a man who was lost in the dark in both levels of meaning rather than a man who was tempted by bright beauty. I could have been wrong, but I think it’s worth considering. With “A Dust of Snow”  certain images have been determined by most academic readers to be, well, symbolic. What if we consider them as real, natural objects and not as handy metaphors?

Robert Frost with axe

Let’s cut down on our use of overdetermined symbols with Robert Frost

We start right off with a crow. “A symbol of death” it is said. Perhaps it doesn’t hurt the poem to think that. I think it’s a crow. A dark bird, darker yet against the snow, and no crow would let the poet that near without a racket of loud caws. The poet doesn’t let us hear the caws though. Instead, like the uncanny sound of sifting snow in “Stopping by Woods,”  Frost wants us to feel just a dusting of snow falling from the branch as the bird flaps off. He wants the main action in the poem to be almost microscopic. He could have written that the bird’s takeoff “dumped a pound of cold slush down my collar”—but that wouldn’t be the poem he wrote. Is the dust a symbol of death too? Or is it an image of a tiny action of little weight? I hold to the later.

Oh, and symbol alert! The tree the bird left is a hemlock tree. Or as the movieReal Genius  reminds us in “the immortal words of Socrates, who said: ‘I drank what?”

How aware was Frost that the American Hemlock is a pine tree and the European poison is a completely different, smaller plant? If this were written by the avid amateur botanist Emily Dickinson, we’d know the poet would know this. Even William Carlos Williams M. D. might have need to know about the derivations of poison. Like the crow being “death” or a bird, “hemlock” could be a reference to death or suicide—but the evergreen is also a symbol of life in winter too, if it must be a symbol. Frankly I think either taken in a one-to-one direct simile way may overdetermine the poem. In the book of nature, having a black bird against white snow causing the small, light amount of snow to fall from an evergreen tree is sufficient.

And this snow falls on the narrator of the poem, and the small sprinkling of snow lifts the rueful mood. I think that’s the essence of the poem: the smallest action of nature, a flighting crystalline snow sprinkle that may not have weighed an ounce, can lift a human out of their dense internal fixations. I think that’s a more graceful poem than the leaden march of death-crows, grave-dust snow and poison trees. I could be wrong, but I like that poem better.

Musically, a much simpler arrangement than last time, just a bass and 12-string guitar. I’m trying to carve out time to prepare for some more recording with the LYL Band tomorrow. Even if we are successful, you won’t hear those pieces for some time, so use the player below to hear “A Dust of Snow.”

Thanks again for the likes, comments, and the sharing of these pieces on your blogs or on social media.